Tuesday, December 27, 2011

REALITY CHECK: Newt Gingrich as historian?

OK, I confess.  Yes,  I've met Newt Gingrich.  But only once, and it had nothing to do with politics -- at least not directly.  

I happen to belong to a very fine organization called the Capitol Hill Civil War Roundtable, a proud coven of Washington, D.C.-area history zealots enamored with the Civil War.   Yes, that includes me. I love going to their meetings when I can.  They usually bring in a guest speaker, and they manage to attract some terrific ones -- authors of new Civil War books, expert guides from local Virginia civil war battlefields, staff experts from museums, so on.  

For a speaker, they can be a tough audience.  Everyone in the room is an expert, and if you make even the slightest mistake in describing a Civil War battle or personality, someone will always catch it.  (Full disclosure: I gave a talk to the group once about my own book DARK HORSE on the assassination of president James A. Garfield, focusing on Garfield's time in the Civil War, and it was great time, even if a few members made a point to stress that Garfield, as anyone should know, was only a very minor Civil War figure as compared to Winfield Scott Hancock, who opposed Garfield in the 1880 presidential election, who was much more important.)

In any event, one time, as its monthly guest, the group invited Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and current leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.  Gingrich, along with a fine co-author named William Forstchen, had just published a new book called Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War (2005) --  a "what if" story showing how, with a few key changes, fortunes at the famous 1863 battle easily could have changed, with Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia winning the day over the Union's Army of the Potomac.  It was the first of a trilogy that later would be followed by Grant Comes East (2006) and Never Call Retreat (2007).

As much as I hate to admit it, and as much as I may dislike his politics, to his credit, Speaker Gingrich did a very nice job that day talking about the Civil War and his book.  He knew his facts, he knew his story, and he knew his audience.  After a brief talk, he let the group pepper him with questions for almost an hour -- sharp, hard questions from people who really knew their Civil War stuff.  Gingrich was clearly in his element -- relaxed, engaging, interesting, and looking like he was clearly enjoying himself.

The book itself was generally well received among Civil War fans, even if somewhat slanted toward the South, and it made no pretense at scholarship (no footnotes or archive references, for instance).  Here's how Publisher's Weekly summed it up--   

"This well-executed alternative history imagines a Confederate victory at Gettysburg. Former House speaker Gingrich (Contract with America) and historical fiction author Forstchen (Down to the Sea) create a plausible scenario: Robert E. Lee resolves to command, rather than merely coordinate, the efforts of that gaggle of prima donnas known as the high command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Thus, when he leads them into battle against the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, he does not commit his soldiers to a desperate head-butting on the ground chosen by the Union's General Meade. Instead, he maneuvers around the Union flank, placing his tightly run army between Meade and Washington, D.C., scooping up Union supplies and forcing Meade to launch desperate attacks with disastrous results for the Union cause. 

"The authors show thorough knowledge of the people, weapons, tactics and ambience of the Civil War, though their portrayals of historical figures like Lee, Meade, Longstreet and Richard Ewell betray a certain bias (the Confederate men are noble and wise, the Union leaders hot-tempered and vindictive). The novel has a narrative drive and vigor that makes the climactic battle scene a real masterpiece of its kind (it's not for the weak of stomach). The military minutiae probably makes the book inaccessible to anyone who's not a Civil War buff or military fiction fan, but those two sizable groups will find this a veritable feast."

So does writing a first-rate Civil War book qualify somebody to be President of the United States?  Not really, and I'm definitely with the group that thinks Gingrich is too bombastic, erratic, self-absorbed, confrontational, and out of touch for the job -- before even starting on his positions on policy issues.   

Still, after you finish voting against him in the primary or caucus of your choice, don't hesitate for a minute about buying one of his Civil War books.  You'll be glad you did both things.   

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